Beautiful Mess is the first novel by prize-winning Australian novelist and playwright, Claire Christian. When she actually attends, Ava Spirini is in Year 11 at MacGreggor State College, but her regular outbursts in the months since the death of her best friend, Kelly Waititi, have her on shaky ground. Insulting the principal, Mrs Bryan, abusing the school assembly and punching a classmate? Only so much can be excused due to grief before there are consequences. But they just don’t get it: “…she wasn’t just my best friend, she was my soul sister. And that kind of love doesn’t end. You can’t just move on from that.”
Hanging out (and more) with Kelly’s older brother, Lincoln is a way to be closer to her friend, though she’s not sure how Kelly would feel about that. At least her single Dad backs her up in every way, and her boss, Ricky at Magic Kebab, keeps her entertained.
Gideon Franks-Meyer is in Year 12 at Ava’s school. Despite unfailing support from his mums, Mandy and Susan, and his older sister, Annie, his battle with anxiety and depression has been a long and hard one. While he saw Ava’s assembly meltdown and remembers Kelly, he’s sure she won’t recognise him when he turns up to do dishes at Magic Kebab. He’s there because his therapist has suggested taking a “small, safe risk”. Friendship with this fiery girl might be possible if he can overcome crippling shyness; if she doesn’t think his poetry and record collection uncool; it’s probably more than he could wish for.
An alternating narrative gives both Ava and Gideon a voice: they are smart and perceptive, and between them, have many wise words to offer on mental illness. Their story features grief, guilt, self-harm (suicide and cutting), anxiety, depression, love, and friendship. It highlights society’s fixation on being normal and demonstrates the importance of finding the right therapist. Gideon’s poem “Broken” brilliantly encapsulates depression.
While there’s heartache, this is by no means a sombre tale and there’s plenty of humour in the dialogue: “’Do you actually have condoms?’ Susan says. I quickly interject, ‘Yes, I bought them.’ The last thing I need is a trip to Woolies with my mothers to buy condoms. I can just picture the argument in the aisle about which brand is best for durability and ethical production… Besides, what would either of them know about buying condoms?’”
While this novel may be branded as Young Adult, it is certain to appeal equally to older readers. The characters are endearing despite their sometimes unwise decisions and occasionally poor behaviour, the dialogue is believable and the story is important and uplifting. A brilliant debut from an author to watch.